Prosecutors today questioned Issa Hassan Sesay about allegations that Charles Taylor promoted a fellow Sierra Leonean rebel commander to the rank of Two Star General in late 1998, a time when the Sierra Leonean rebels were actively pursuing the conflict in Sierra Leone. Mr. Sesay insisted that it was not Mr. Taylor who issued the promotion to the Sierra Leonean rebel commander.
Prosecutors allege that when Revolutionary United Front (RUF) leader Foday Sankoh was incarcerated by the government of Sierra Leone, Mr. Taylor had full control over the RUF and that the rebel group’s commanders took all orders from the former Liberian president. According to several prosecution witnesses, sometime in 1998, RUF commander Sam Bockarie returned from Liberia and informed them that Mr. Taylor had promoted him to the rank of General in the RUF. Prosecutors say this points at Mr. Taylor’s control over the Sierra Leonean rebel group.
Mr. Taylor has dismissed these allegations as false. Mr. Sesay has told the court that Mr. Bockarie was promoted by Johnny Paul Koroma, then former leader of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), a group of Sierra Leonean soldiers who overthrew the elected government of Sierra Leone in 1997 and teamed up with the RUF to establish a government. The joint AFRC/RUF junta regime was forcefully removed from power by Economic Community of West African States (ECOMOG) peacekeepers in 1998.
Today, prosecution counsel Nicholas Koumjian in cross-examining Mr. Sesay showed him individual pictures of Mr. Bockarie, Mr. Taylor’s former vice president Moses Blah, and the former Director of Special Security Services Benjamin Yeaten who, according to Mr. Koumjian, all displayed their stars indicating their military ranks in the same fashion. In the picture, all three persons were wearing “red berets” with the stars indicating their positions as Generals on the front of their berets.
“The red berets are identical that Sam Bockarie, Benjamin Yeaten, and Moses Blah are wearing, correct?” Mr. Koumjian asked Mr. Sesay.
“Yes, I see them, but we too had red berets.” Mr. Sesay responded.
When the prosecution noted that “[i]t’s the same uniform, the same type of khaki uniform that Sam Bockarie has with the Liberians,” Mr. Sesay explained that “this is a US camouflage that the Nigerians used to wear, we used to capture them.”
“When we joined the AFRC, [Corporal] Gborie used to supply those red berets to the RUF. Even when we fought ECOMOG, we used to capture these camouflage, we captured lots of red berets,” he added.
Mr. Koumjian pointed out that the difference between the Sierra Leone Army (SLA) and Mr. Taylor’s forces was that in Sierra Leone, the soldiers displayed their stars on their military uniforms while Mr. Taylor’s forces displayed theirs on their berets, as done by Mr. Yeaten and Mr. Blah. Mr. Sesay agreed with Mr. Koumjian on this.
“It’s correct, isn’t it, that the Sierra Leone Army would not wear stars on the beret?” Mr. Koumjian asked again.
In response, Mr. Sesay said, “Yes, the Sierra Leone Army, they put their ranks on their uniform.”
“This is just further evidence that the promotion of Sam Bockarie was done by Mr. Taylor, not Johnny Paul Koroma,” Mr. Koumjian challenged Mr. Sesay.
“No,” Mr. Sesay said. “He was promoted by Johnny Paul. They can promote you and you’ll remove the star from the uniform and put it on your beret. That’s what Sam Bockarie did.”
As diamonds have taken a center stage in the case against Mr. Taylor, Mr. Koumjian also today asked Mr. Sesay several questions relating to the gemstone. Prosecution witnesses have testified that after the removal of the AFRC from power by ECOMOG forces in 1998, RUF commanders, including Mr. Sesay and Mr. Bockarie, harassed AFRC leader Johnny Paul Koroma and removed diamonds from his briefcase. These diamonds, a prosecution witness said, amounted to more than 1,000 pieces and were taken to Mr. Taylor in Liberia in exchange for arms and ammunition. While admitting that the diamonds were taken from Johnny Paul Koroma, Mr. Sesay has disputed the quantity of the diamonds as well as the allegations that Mr. Taylor benefited from them. Mr. Sesay said that there were only 14 pieces of diamonds that he was supposed to take to Burkina Faso, but they were mistakenly lost while he was in transit in Liberia.
Mr. Koumjian read from a portion of the 1999 salute report that was presented to Mr. Sankoh by RUF commander Mr. Bockarie after the RUF leader’s release from jail. In the report, Mr. Bockarie referenced more than 1,000 pieces of diamonds that were obtained from Johnny Paul Koroma and a separate “14 pieces of diamonds [which were] misplaced by Issa Sesay.” Mr. Sesay insisted that his account about the diamonds was the correct account.
According to Mr. Sesay, when these diamonds were misplaced in Liberia, an announcement was made over the ELWA radio in Monrovia confirming their loss.
When asked about such a radio announcement during his testimony as a witness in his own defense, Mr. Taylor told the court, “I never heard that report.”
When confronted with the allegation that he had made up this story about the ELWA radio station announcement, Mr. Sesay said, “No, no, no. I did not make this up. This was well known in Buedu. That is not a made up story.”
When told that “these were not the diamonds taken from Johnny Paul Koroma,” Mr. Sesay insisted that “those were the diamonds.
Mr. Sesay also made clear that he did not have the ability to determine the value or price of diamonds that were used to obtain arms and ammunition for the RUF. This prompted another allegation from Mr. Koumjian.
“The reason why you don’t know the value of diamonds is because you’ll take the diamonds to Mr. Taylor and he’ll give you whatever money he wanted together with arms and ammunition,” Mr. Koumjian said.
“No. That’s not true. I never took diamonds to Mr. Taylor and he never gave me arms and ammunition,” Mr. Sesay responded.
Mr. Sesay’s testimony continues on Thursday.